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Women In The Line Of Fire

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Long Islander|By Mike Koehler

Chiefs call female firefighters an ‘asset’ to departments
In a field dominated by men, there are many female firefighters in the area who aren’t afraid to gear up and put their life in danger to help out members of their community.

These courageous women say they were drawn to the fire department as a way to give back. And despite the potential differences in strength when it comes to comparing women and men, female firefighters say they are treated no differently from their male counterparts.

“At the end of the day when you’re wearing your gear, the person you’re going in to help is not going to know if you’re a girl or a guy,” Kate Kuntz, 27, a member of the Halesite Fire Department, said. “They expect everyone who is going out and working for the firehouse to know how to do everything.”

Sometimes, being a woman in a man’s world means adapting and finding your strength. Becca Abensur, 32, has been a member of the Dix Hills Fire Department for six years. Although there may be some physical restraints, she said, she learned to use her other strengths to compensate.

“When you’re handling the hose, sometimes guys use their upper arm strength. My legs are what’s really strong, so I’m not changing what I’m doing, but altering it,” she said. “You have to do everything that a guy can do. You can’t not be able to do something just because you’re a woman.”

Abensur, who works as an attorney, said the men at the department are great and don’t treat her any differently.

“The actual job itself – being a firefighter – it’s challenging both physically and mentally. It’s very different from my career and I like the balance in my life, hands on stuff and desk work,” she said.

Dix Hills Fire Chief Rich Granahan said there are about eight women on the squad and described them as an asset to the community.

“I think it opens up the pool of volunteers – gender wise – which adds to our manpower and we’re always looking for anyone who is interested in training and learning and helping the community,” he said.

Abensur started off as an EMT and then became a firefighter later.

“It wasn’t even something I knew about growing up, and when I was in college a friend of mine was in the fire squad… and that's part of the reason I learned about the volunteer service,” she said. “I thought since this is volunteer service, this is something I wanted to do.”

Lisa Fusaro, 33, of South Huntington, felt a similar calling. She grew up with many firefighting men in her family and knew early on this was something she wanted to do. She has been fighting fires for almost 14 years.

“I knew I didn’t want to do it as a career, but to give back to my community,” said Fusaro, who is a special education teacher at Elwood-John Glenn High School. “It’s like an adrenaline rush – not that anyone wishes harm on anyone else – but I like that fast-paced type of stuff, so it was there, and I enjoy it a lot.”

Training for female firefighters is the same as for the men. When a firefighter becomes a part of any department in the county, he or she has to attend the Suffolk County Fire Department, a vocational school in Yaphank, and take 26 classes. Upon completion, members go through field training.

“I love it. I love firefighting. I feel like I’m a very rounded person because of the different things that I am able to do,” Fusaro said.

Mike DePasquale, assistant chief of the Huntington Manor Fire Department, said there are about six women in his department, and they work just as hard as the men do.

“They’re treated just the same as men and I think that’s how they want it to be – treated as an equal,” he said. “They are definitely an asset to the department.”
Although firefighters are predominantly men, female firefighters date back to the 1800s. According to the U.S. Fire Administration website, Molly Williams, an enslaved African-American who served with the Oceanus Engine Company No. 11 in New York City, was the first woman firefighter in 1815.

Other notable women who made their mark in firefighting history are Anne Crawford Allen Holst, who was the first female fire chief at Rhode Island’s Cedar Hill Fire Department in 1931, and Toni McIntosh of the Pittsburgh, Penn. Bureau of Fire, who was the first African-American woman to become a career firefighter in 1976.
According to the National Fire Protection Agency, 10,800 out of 301,000 firefighters in the United States in 2010, or 3.6 percent, were women.

Halesite Chief Andy Magerle has been a member of the department for 21 years and has seen females in the department even before he started. Currently there are eight women in his department.

“They’re an important part of our organization,” he said.

Laura Scicchitano, 27, of Huntington Station began her journey with the Huntington Manor Fire Department over two years ago.

“It’s a good feeling to do something that matters to people who share that same interest and have that same drive,” she said.
After Scicchitano graduated high school, she was looking into master’s programs and found herself attending a school in Connecticut for fire science with a concentration in arson investigation. After completing a semester, she decided to come back home and volunteer for a local fire department.
Besides volunteering her services for Huntington Manor, Scicchitano works part time for the Huntington Fire Department and Halesite Fire Department as a dispatcher.
“[My family] couldn’t be prouder,” she said. “No one really in my family does anything like it, so it kind of caught everyone by surprise. It’s not what they expected, but they think it’s the coolest thing ever.”

Kuntz is the first person in her family to serve in the fire department. She has a few male friends in nearby departments who enjoyed helping others, and she thought she wanted to do the same.

“It was a little intimidating because you don’t know anybody and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but this August it will be three years and it’s awesome,” she said.

Kuntz, who works as an office manager at Merry Maids housecleaning services full time, noted the fire department is like one big family – everyone accepts one another and she’s treated just like one of the guys.

“There’s more women joining in my department and it’s nice to see and have someone you can relate to,” she said. “I think more woman realize they don’t have to be the idea of a big, strong, tall fireman but have to be someone who’s willing to help someone on the worst day of their life.”




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